Painting What’s Close to Home

We’ve shown you fabulous scenes from the side-walls of the Sistine Chapel in other posts before, like “Moses and the Sistine Chapel.” On the chapel’s opposite side, Sandro Botticelli painted The Temptation of Christ, which contains an image that is well known Botticellito the locals, but one that will go right over visitors’ heads.

As you can see in this stunning fresco, there are multiple scenes from the gospels, all included in a single panel. In front, we see the daughter of Jairus after she was raised from the dead by Our Lord (Mark 5:21-43). Behind this joyful celebration, however, we find the various incidents that occurred during Christ’s forty days in the desert, when he was tempted by the devil (Matthew 4:1-11). In the top right corner, for example, satan went with Jesus to a high pinnacle and showed Him the world, offering it all to Jesus if only He would adore him. On the top left, the devil pressures Our Lord to turn these stones into bread–prompting His famous reply, “Man does not live by bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

But it’s the top-center scene that contains a nearby monument, well known to the Santo Spirito hospitalRomans. The devil takes Jesus to the “pinnacle of the temple,” and urges Him to cast Himself down to the ground–since (the devil said slyly) God’s angels would protect Him. Like all Renaissance painters, Botticelli had absolutely no idea what the Temple in Jerusalem had really looked like; it had been completely destroyed by Emperor Titus in the year 70 A.D. (Are you rusty on your ancient history? We can tell you the full story!) Instead, Botticelli chose to depict the side-chapel of the medieval Santo Spirito Hospital, which is located only a few blocks away. As you can see from this current photo, the chapel is still largely unchanged, and the hospital–which of course has been updated a few times since Botticelli’s era!–is still functioning today.

Paint what you know, not what you don’t! Heaven only knows how many visitors to the Sistine Chapel actually notice the hospital chapel, worked into this New-Testament fresco on the side wall. But if you tour Rome with us, we’ll make sure you catch subtle, little known details like this one, which make your tour far more interesting!